Once again, the Oscars reminds us that the movies deserve a lot better than the Oscars.
In a year that gave us intelligent and moving films, including 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Gravity and (the non-nominated) Inside Llewyn Davis, last night's Oscar broadcast felt about as creative and vigorous as a Jay Leno rerun.
This was a year that the Oscars made history, and the suspense was held until the very end, when 12 Years a Slave became the first serious film about slavery, and the first film by a black director (Steve McQueen) to win best picture. It won additional Oscars for John Ridley for best adapted screenplay and Lupita Nyong'o for best supporting actress – both of whom made moving speeches. There were three films supposedly in tight competition for the lion's share of awards, although in the end it was a lopsided contest, with Gravity sweeping up the technical awards, and American Hustle going zero for 10 nominations.
There's a lot of drama there, though you wouldn't know it. The Oscars are a celebration of movie excellence marinated in habitual mediocrity. An event that occupies3.5 hours of prime-time television, and is seen by 40 million people in the United States alone, always feels like an awkward celebrity roast. The whole thing reeks of desperately needing a major overhaul.
Yes, this year's host Ellen DeGeneres was slightly better than Seth MacFarlane or Billy Crystal, but she acted as if none of it really mattered. She played it soft and silly, though the hit-and-miss interactions with the celebrities in the front rows didn't feel like comic relief so much as arbitrary extension of the running time to sell ad dollars.
The real momentum killers, though, are the dreaded Oscar montages, which this year focused on the shapeless theme of "heroes" which, as one tweeter noted, was akin to "celebrating movies with protagonists." ( Is Footloose really a hero movie?) This attempt to include footage of box-office movies that don't win awards felt transparently cynical.
Some traditions have improved. The live performances of nominated songs provide a useful change of pace, and this year's musical performances, by Pharrell Williams, Idina Menzel, U2 and Karen O, were varied. But the idea of finding opportunities for musical emotional climactic moments are typically wrong-headed. Pink's overwrought rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow was a dubious tribute to the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz (who cares about these arbitrary anniversaries?). The kitsch low point was Bette Midler's wobbly rendition of The Wind Beneath My Wings, which followed the "in memoriam" reel of movie artists who died last year, showed in Instagram-style images, apparently smiling down through clouds in Heaven.
Too much of the Oscars consists of bad readings of bad scripts, a backhanded way of honouring the movie profession. There's only one thing about the Oscars that still really works – those moments we wait for when the nominees break through the encrusted kitsch and remind us of the unusual human beings behind the work.
This year's human moments include the burst of song from the great Darlene Love from 20 Feet from Stardom; Steve McQueen breaking into a nervous stutter; and Bill Murray ad-libbing a tribute to the late Harold Ramis while presenting the cinematography awards. It also includes actor winner Matthew McConaughey thanking God (when's the last time you heard that?) and declaring that his "hero" was himself, and giving full vent to his fascinating eccentricity. Let the personalities spill out. Just scrap the anniversaries and the tributes and the scripted banter, that are all business and make for a poor show.